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Shuttleworth heir opens up on Ubuntu biz

Canonical kingdom spans 10 million machines

The community

The Canonical business is, of course, driven through the Ubuntu community, the vast majority of which get the software for free and don't pay anything for it because they do not consume services offered by Canonical. Just like the Fedora and openSUSE projects do not generate money (or much money, in the case of openSUSE, which Novell will offer tech support for, unlike Red Hat with Fedora).

So how big is that community? And what potential does it have for generating increasing revenues?

"All of our indicators are imperfect ones," explains Silber, and that is because Ubuntu's desktop and server distros do not have call-home features that allow Canonical to track their use; and while Canonical does have a sense of how many Ubuntu licenses are distributed through OEM deals, the problem is that in some cases, a box with Ubuntu is sold and then the Linux is nuked and a pirated copy of Windows is plunked down on the machine. "We know this happens on certain machines in certain markets, and we obviously don't like it," Silber says.

As far as Canonical can tell from its indirect indicators, the worldwide base of machines running Ubuntu is above 10 million. Back in October 2007, when Ubuntu 7.10 was launched, Shuttleworth was estimating the base to be around 6 million. (In 2006, Shuttleworth was guessing 8 million users, but backed down from that number). According to Silber, using some of the indicators it uses to reckon its installed base are growing at 10 per cent per month, which is very healthy growth for any software company, open source or not.

The important thing - and one that perhaps Novell should take a lesson from - is that Ubuntu's headcount and presumably its revenues (because Shuttleworth is actually a businessman) are growing at a faster clip than the installed base. Which could mean that Ubuntu has a fairly high conversion rate, relative to other open source programs, moving freebie customers to paid services.

The other interesting thing about the Ubuntu business is how it is changing. The vast majority of the support contracts that Canonical gets money from come from companies, not consumers, although consumers sometimes pay for an Ubuntu support contract indirectly when they buy Ubuntu embedded in a device.

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